The North South Cooperation that we enjoy today brings tangible benefits to the daily lives of people, across the island of Ireland, particularly to those living in the border region, and contributes to economic opportunity and development. It is also a very practical outworking of the peace process which allows for, and in turn encourages, the normalisation of relationships between people across the island.
The Government, and my Department, are firmly focused on protecting the full range of areas of North South cooperation, including in the context of Brexit, as well as providing for its continued development.
The North South Ministerial Council (NSMC), which was established under Strand Two of the Good Friday Agreement to develop consultation, cooperation and action within the island of Ireland, is the formal means for advancing North South cooperation. In the Council, the Government works with the Northern Ireland Executive to advance areas of practical cooperation which are to our mutual benefit. The NSMC provides the opportunity for a strategic and structured approach to cooperation across a range of key policy areas within the competence of the two administrations.
Since the Northern Ireland Executive ceased to function in January 2017, the NSMC has been unable to meet and bring the Government and Executive together to oversee ongoing North South work and further develop cooperation, as provided for under the Good Friday Agreement. This is a most serious absence, and particularly so at a time when the Council should be continuing the work it commenced in 2016 to deal with the challenges of the UK exit from the European Union.
Despite the absence of Ministers from Northern Ireland Departments, there is a wide variety of activity underway, both in terms of the formal areas of cooperation, the ongoing work of the North South Implementation Bodies and in cooperation outside of the formal North South institutional framework.
The NSMC is supported by a standing Joint Secretariat in Armagh, staffed by members of the Irish and Northern Ireland Civil Services, with staff costs met separately. In addition to servicing the Council, the officials from my Department who are working in the Joint Secretariat also perform other important functions focussed on advocacy for North South cooperation.
My Department’s officials in Armagh actively pursue our priorities for advancing cooperation by developing networks of contacts and outreach to Northern Ireland’s economic and business sector, as well as analysing and reporting on the progress of such cooperation, including the work of the North South Implementation Bodies. The Department’s officials in Dublin and in Armagh also play a coordinating role in Government activity on North South issues, attending and chairing meetings of the North South Interdepartmental Coordinators, and encouraging and advancing cross-border cooperation at official level.